By Elaine Strauss (New Jersey) and John Lambert (North Carolina)
In this Wagner bicentennial year, there are performances of his operas even by companies that would not normally consider producing them. Consider The Flying Dutchman, the first of the so-called mature operas of Wagner, which was performed at the Princeton Festival in June after an absence of over 80 years from New Jersey stages.
Directed by Steven LaCosse and conducted by festival artistic director and founder Richard Tang Yuk, it yielded visually arresting scenic effects, compelling instrumental collaboration and a feast of excellent vocalists including Mark Delavan in the title role.
The opera was co-produced with North Carolina-based Piedmont Opera, which has its own upcoming performances Oct. 25, 27 and 29 at the lovely Stevens Center in Winston-Salem, with a new cast featuring Jake Gardner as the Dutchman, Carter Scott as Senta, Brian Banion as her father Daland, and Jason Wickson as Erik. James Allbritten conducts.
Winston-Salem is the home of the North Carolina School of the Arts, where LaCosse hangs his hat. It is said to be America’s first state-supported conservatory – although it is much more than that, as a glance at its mission statement reveals. In a telephone interview from Winston-Salem prior to the Princeton premiere, LaCosse said the Princeton-Piedmont collaboration for The Flying Dutchman grew out of a casual conversation with James Allbritten, his colleague at NCSA and Piedmont’s artistic director.
“We were talking about celebrating the Verdi, Britten, and Wagner anniversaries, and I suggested that Piedmont join Princeton for The Flying Dutchman,” recalled LaCosse. “It took until (last) October for them to decide to join us. Things went slowly because it’s always a risk when a new production is involved.”
Scenic designer for Dutchman is Mark Pirolo and lighting designer is Norman Coates; both are at NCSA. The production was built at shops in the school. “It’s a convenience to have the whole design team here,” said LaCosse. “I can go over to Mark’s studio or walk across the street to the lighting designer. It’s good to have all the players in one town.”
LaCosse, who has directed nine of the ten operas that the Princeton Festival has presented since its founding in 2004, said he delights in using the latest projection technology to tell his version of the story of the sea captain doomed to reappear with his ship every seven years until he finds a loving woman to free him from the curse.
“I’ve set the action in 1840, at the time of the industrial revolution. The Dutchman’s ship is from the 16th century and has sails. The Norwegian ship was made 200 years later and is steam powered. In the original, the women spin yarn; in 1840, steam-powered looms make fabrics. Our projections are like mini-movies with wheels turning and the waves always rolling in. We’re doing some special things about the appearance and disappearance of the Dutchman’s ship. I’m always about telling the story. As long as we tell the story, that’s what matters.”
The use of video projections makes the production expensive, says Princeton Festival’s Tang Yuk. “The projectors are expensive to rent,” he said. “With Piedmont on board, we can do a more elaborate production since we’re sharing costs. Fortunately, their stage is roughly the same size as McCarter’s. The design works in both spaces.”
“There’s a supernatural element in The Dutchman,” LaCosse said. “With new technology you can go in and out of reality and make the scenery literal, suggestive, or unrealistic. The supernatural and the technically advanced fit together. Wagner reads like special effects. I wonder how they did it back then.”
The Flying Dutchman breaks an artistic barrier not only for the Princeton Festival and central New Jersey, but also for director LaCosse. This is his first Wagner opera, and it has a personal meaning for him, he explained. “When I was in high school, I became editor of the high school yearbook through a fluke. So I went to journalism camp at Indiana University in Bloomington to learn how to do it. They were putting on The Flying Dutchman while I was there.
“I bought a ticket and sat in the third balcony in the last row. If I close my eyes I can remember sitting in that seat and watching and everything about it. When they started singing I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do — become an opera singer.’ Until then I thought that I was going to become a choir director. What pushed me into becoming a singer is the first Wagner opera I am directing.”
Music-loving visitors to Old Salem, a restored 18th-century Moravian community that is one of Winston-Salem’s many attractions, should note the magnificent Old Salem Tannenberg organ there. And those who come to North Carolina for this Piedmont Opera production and who get hooked on Southern hospitality may wish to know that Opera Carolina, based in Charlotte, is doing Dutchman, too – in the spring of 2014. For details of that run, click here.
Elaine Strauss is a free lancer who writes chiefly about music and the arts. Her articles have appeared in publications in the metropolitan New York area and in national publications. She is a devoted pianist and a player of chamber music. John W. Lambert is the former executive editor of Classical Voice North Carolina.
Note: A version of Elaine Strauss’s interview with LaCosse and Tang Yuk was originally published in U.S. 1: Princeton’s Business and Entertainment Newspaper June 26, 2013. Strauss’s review of the Princeton production is here.